The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), India's premier nuclear research organisation, will propagate the societal benefits of nuclear technology in agriculture, health and industry while completing its planned research reactor projects, its top official has said. It plans to take radiation treatment technology to the small towns of India. “We do a lot in the field of agriculture like seed development, tissue culture and preservation techniques. It is now more a question of making the progressive farmers know and use them. On the industrial side, we transfer technologies developed by us. Recently, we transferred water purification technologies to the Godrej group,” BARC Director Shekhar Basu told IANS in an interview over the phone from Mumbai.

Basu, who assumed office last month, said his plans include taking the radiation treatment technologies to tier-two and -three cities and facilitate infrastructure development in these areas. “In the healthcare segment we have a role to play in radiation treatment. My target is to go to tier two/ three cities for this. This will need infrastructure presence there. I will try to reach that. In major cities the treatment facilities are available and now we need to go further,” Basu said. He said BARC has transferred the technology to manufacture the Bhabhatron – an affordable radiotherapy machine for cancer treatment. “We will see how the system could be propagated,” Basu said.

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre

BARC has developed micro-propagation protocols – a technique for large-scale rapid plant multiplication – for banana, sugarcane, pineapple, potato, turmeric and ginger. While the banana tissue culture production has been transferred to a couple of agencies, BARC is now working on sugarcane, pineapple and others. According to Basu, the nuclear research organisation has done good work in the genetic improvement of the groundnut crop as well as preservation of agricultural produce. “BARC has developed 15 varieties of confectionary grade groundnut seeds. Farmers sowing our seeds have better yield than others. The national average of summer yield is around 2.5 tonnes per hectare whereas farmers using our seeds harvest around four tonnes per hectare,” S.F.D'Souza, associate director, (Bio-Medical Group, Nuclear Agriculture and Bio-Technology), told IANS. He said large acreage of black gram with BARC-developed seeds is cultivated in Maharashtra.

According to him, BARC is now working on development of crops that can tolerate climate change and certain diseases. “On the preservation side, we do radiation processing of onions and potatos to prevent early sprouting and extend their shelf life. The chemical process to preserve the lichi fruit has been transferred for commercialization. We have also developed the nuclear process of lichi preservation,” D'Souza said. Meanwhile, on the issue of BARC's core activity – nuclear research – Basu said the focus is on completing the research projects and accelerating the fundamental research projects.

Expressing satisfaction on BARC's performance on patent filings and publication of papers, Basu said,  “Last year a dozen patents were filed by BARC researchers, out of which some are universal patents. Our researchers are also publishing papers in various journals. Last year, we published over 1,400 papers in journals. The record of citation of those papers by other researchers is also good.” While employee attrition is not a major issue for BARC, the new director agreed that attracting good talent is a challenge owing to the attractive pay scales offered by the private sector. “The challenge is that overseas institutions are looking at India for their research and hence there is a great demand for talent. But today's scientific research is a collaborative effort of various researchers and not an individual activity. What we need is a set of committed people and not the best of brains,” he said.

He sounded positive to the view that a brand ambassador for science would be of help in encouraging students to look at science as a career. Queried about BARC's reactor projects, Basu expressed his hope that the Apsara reactor that was shut down in 2010 would get a new core during his tenure and would start producing isotopes for various research facilities. “New core means new fuel. The fuel will be better than the earlier one,” he added. BARC is planning to build two research reactors, the 100-125 MW Dhruva-2 and a high flux research reactor to produce isotopes (that are now being imported), at Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh.

On the much-awaited advanced heavy water reactor (AHWR) powered by thorium, Basu said, “Detailed engineering is on for the 300 MW reactor. The programme has to go into project mode. Now the stage is to get the sanction and a site has to be selected.” Denying any slowdown in research on light water reactors (LWR) in the wake of India planning to import several units, Basu said, “Import is one part. We should continue our research and development programmes in parallel to support the imported systems. At BARC the 700 MW LWRs are in the development mode.” According to Basu, work on the Rs.7,000 crore integrated fuel reprocessing facility at Tarapur in Maharashtra has started with orders for components being placed. The project is expected to be completed during the 12th/ 13th plan period.

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